Question: I am writing supplemental essays and three of them ask the same question: "Why do you want to go to (school name)?" Is it okay to basically copy and paste the exact same essay answer for all three? They mention my tour of the school, how I was drawn to the esteemed English program and how it's my first choice. Will they know (or care) if I said the same thing to other schools?
“The Dean" has written about this thorny issue before. Here you'll find some advice on handling these irksome supplemental essays. They're largely irksome because pretty much any extra essay is going to be annoying to a busy high school senior. But they're also irksome because students often feel pressured to tell every college, “You're my first choice." Clearly you feel this pressure, too, but it's a lousy idea. I'll get to that in a minute. But first, let me explain why your copy-and-paste plan is a lousy idea as well.
Selective colleges receive far more applications than they have spaces to offer, and some students who are ultimately rejected may be just as strong as those who are admitted. So college officials must make tough choices among seemingly qualified ... and seemingly similar ... candidates. And this is why many schools stick seniors with those vexing, “Why us?" essays. They're looking for students who will be well suited to their institution and who are likely to enroll.
So if you try to kill three birds with one stone, your essays are going to convey a lack of interest and effort, and you won't convince the admission folks that their school is where you're meant to be. It's fine to have a basic structure in place (e.g., you can write about the tour and the English department as you've already suggested), but you need to be very specific about each. What, exactly, did the tour guide say that especially captivated you? Did she tell you about a unique college holiday and an unusual internship option? Describe them!
Steer clear of the easy generic answers (“The tour guide told us about several campus traditions and about the great professors and classes.") You've got to make your essay sound as if it were written for one college alone. And when it comes to touting the virtues of an English major, you'll have your work cut out for you. It's a lot easier to effuse about an uncommon program than it is about a major that is nearly ubiquitous and where the majority of courses are the same everywhere. So you'll have to dig deep into each college's online catalog to see if there are English classes (or related research opportunities, summer programs, etc.) that seem atypical and that you can mention in your essay.
As you'll read in the “Ask the Dean" column cited above, use comments on websites like College Confidential to search for details about your target schools or make contact with a current student. Above all, once you've gathered this information, explain why it pertains to you ... e.g., how a particular professor's newest book meshes with a term paper you wrote last winter or how you can't wait to join the Kale and Hearty Vegan Supper Club that hosts weekly potlucks after paddleboard yoga classes.
Finally, definitely don't say, “This is my first choice" more than once. Although the odds are slim that an admission official from one of your “first-choice" schools will be comparing notes over margaritas with an admission official from another, you're still risking bad luck (and the even more enduring bad karma) with such dishonesty. Instead, you can end your essay with something like, “I'd be honored to become a Bobcat" (or a Boilermaker or a Banana Slug ... ). This will underscore your enthusiasm without implying that you've already ordered the sweatshirt.
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